The title of my book about shyness, Shrinking Violets, is slightly disingenuous. I don’t, as it happens, think that shyness is just about fear or timidity, or about shrinking away from the world. And the term “shrinking violet” is rarely used to describe a shy person these days. It has a pre-1960s feel to it. For example, in Howard Jacobson’s autobiographical novel, The Mighty Walzer (1999), set in the 1950s, the "Shrinking Violets" are the central character’s shy aunts, described by his father as being akin to “an established showbiz group like the Andrews Sisters.”
An internet search for "shrinking violet" brings up links to a weight reduction method that you may use to magically “reduce by a dress size in one treatment.” The treatment seems to involve wrapping oneself in a heat-inducing cling film material full of essential oils that trigger lipolysis, which breaks down fats. It promises, in other words, a literal rather than a figurative shrinking—perhaps the only type of shrinking now deemed acceptable in a society ruled by what Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), calls “the extrovert ideal."
The romantic poet and critic Leigh Hunt first used "shrinking violet" in 1820. Long before then, the violet had been synonymous with shyness because of its bent neck, its small flowers that blossom only in March and April, and its intense yet fleeting smell, partly produced by the chemical ionine, which briefly anesthetizes the nerve endings in our noses. In the 18th century, the Romantics fastened on the violet as the diffident harbinger of spring; in an 1818 sonnet, Keats called the violet “the Queen of secrecy.”
But whatever the romantics may have thought, there is nothing "shrinking" about violets. They are tenacious flowers that thrive in any good soil, and without human intervention. Individual violets might shrink, but collectively they are eye-catching and attention-grabbing, showing up like chunks of amethyst in the undergrowth. Goethe used to carry violet seeds in his pockets, scattering them on his walks around Weimar as his own contribution to the beauty of the world.
Perhaps, on reflection, the violet is rather a good metaphor for shyness that is about much more than just shrinking away. Violets “shrink” not as a way of retreating from the world, but simply as part of nature’s talent for endless variation and sustaining life in varied habitats. Shyness, too, can flourish in many climates and soils, and express itself in many unlikely ways. It can, like the violet, be accompanied by a surprising resilience, even bloody-mindedness. And its effects may be inconspicuous in individuals but, when viewed en masse, seem to run like a vein through much human endeavor, from the sublimations of art, music, and writing to the polite rituals of social life.
“Les grands timides," as French psychiatrist Ludovic Dugas called shy people in a 1922 book of the same name, lead lives of “complicated dissimulation, full of subtleties and detours." Human beings are social animals by instinct and default setting, so all shyness does is make us social in peculiar and circuitous ways. It is less a shrinking away from the world than a displacement or redirection of our energies; it reroutes our dormant social impulses into new and creative areas. It can offer us accidental compensations, prodding us into doing what we might not have done if we had found our everyday encounters more congenial. It leads us down stimulating side streets after it has blocked off the main routes; it takes us off on unintended tangents. Howard Jacobson, for instance, has described himself as an acutely shy child who became a writer because he was "afraid of the world and wanted to remake it.”
I see shyness as neither a boon nor a burden, but simply part of the oddness of being human. The subject of shyness is a fertile ground for exploring bigger questions about what it means to be thinking, feeling selves, aware that we are sharing a planet with billions of other such selves. Perhaps the oddest part of the many odd things about shyness is that, unlike other anxious states like fear or shame, it never strikes when we are alone. Shyness can be a source of pain and loneliness, of course, but it also shows how linked we are, and how much we matter to each other.